This weekend (15th May) marks a very special anniversary for Chris and I. Twenty years ago we filled a 7ton truck with all our posessions and hopped on the Portsmouth to St Malo ferry to live in France .
We’d been planning for about a year. The previous June we were staying here on holiday in my parents holiday home, we’d been coming for a few years. Chris first came down in 1988 with my brother to help my Dad finish renovating his first French cottage (and have a boys holiday drinking wine and soaking up the sun) – a curies cottage opposite the 12th century church in the village of Fontaine Chalendray about 20 mins drive from here. (Chris and I have been together quite a while, we met in 1983 when I was just 16)
My parents had bought the property here in France, in 1985. My father was a workaholic and loved to build . He had taken early retirement and needed something to fill his time (he wasn’t a builder he had been chief accountant for the post office but built houses in his spare time; at that point he’d already self built at least 8 houses in the Uk – on weekends and evenings !)
A friend had told him that property in France was cheap and there wern’t the same restrictions on self building as in Spain where they had a villa and you had to use Spanish builders rather than doing it yourself . This area seemed a logical place – it was cheap as few people in those days had heard of the Charente Maritime. Most Brits bought in Brittany or wizzed through on the motorway down to the Dordogne. It was also where he often stopped on his long drive from Cheshire to the Costa Blanca.
The cottage garden after renovation. The mural on the wall was painted by artist and lifelong friend of my father, Jeff Littlejones. It is a picture of the original chateau that stood on the hill where the village of Fontaine Chalendray is now.
My parents bought the cottage and attached stone barn for £4000 ! The cottage was basically habitable with a fosse, toilet and cold water tap, my father just made it really habitable with hot and cold running water, a fitted kitchen and a modern bathroom. He was looking forward to spending time here, slowly renovating the barn next door and enjoying the way of life, however that didn’t happen….
One sunny day there was a knock at the door. A french man from Remy Martin Cognac house. The company had run a competition in the UK to promote Rémy Martin. First prize was a house in Cognac country. The competition had run and the winner was waiting for her keys. The problem was they didn’t have a house to give her. They had underestimated the lack of truly habitable houses for sale in the area. There was no ‘housing market’ in the Charente Maritime. There was in Cognac itself but the prices were too high for the company – they’d banked on a cheap country side cottage. After asking around they had been pointed in the direction of my fathers house who everyone in the village knew had all the ‘mod cons’ including a satellite dish which the locals had never seen the like of before .
One of the cottages my father bought with the proceeds. We still have this house which dates from 1796. We are very slowly renovating it.
They offered my father £25,000 for just the cottage (they didn’t want the barn) – it didn’t take many of his accountancy skills to work out he should sell, and his desire to be busy meant he should buy another property to do up.
To cut quite a long story a little shorter he bought, renovated and sold another 3 stone barns over the next few years until he eventually bought the barns here in Courgeon – La Grange du Moulin was born !
My father enjoying his retirement – this is now Fleurie and Peche cottages at La Grange du Moulin
We started coming on holiday here around 1990 – a cheap holiday for us staying in my parents holiday home. We loved the peace and quiet, in those days, what we now call the main road was a quiet lane where perhaps a tractor or two would pass during the day.
Helping Mum and Dad with the terracing around the pool at La Grange du Moulin
We helped my Dad with building the pool, building some stone walls and painting spiral staircases – a real change from our busy lives both working in the UK. The stone barns, he had converted into 6 individual cottages. When we asked what he intended, he really had no idea – he just loved building, repairing roofs, knocking holes in walls for windows, he was addicted !
Chris and my brother Richard helping with building the pool the year before we moved here
It was our suggestion that perhaps they might make good holiday rental properties – he bit our hands off and wanted us to stay and get busy letting them out ! We were slightly more cautious, had a think (for about 5 minutes) and agreed we would move down the following year.
And that was that – we handed in our notice, saved a bit of money, got a tenant for our house in Tunbridge wells and hopped on the ferry with all our worldly posessions with no research, no long term, no help from ‘ house in the sun ‘ just lots of excitement and a few bookings for the summer. We appreciate how lucky we were to be able to do this without risking anything. We thought maybe a few years in France then if it doesn’t work out we’d just return to the uk…. 20 years later we are still here, 2 kids and a thriving business.
Getting the garden ready after the fosses had been installed
It’s not all been plain sailing of course we’ve got dozens of stories that we say will go in ‘our book’ of interesting guests (changing the names of course !) and the early days were hard going, having a much reduced income, being self employed and no certainty that we’d have any income the next year, as well as having no monthly salary but just a lump sum from payments generally in May and June that you have to make last for the whole year. Plus our tenant in the UK had to leave, we had trouble finding someone else so we had to sell as we couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on our income here. We loved living in rural France, being masters of our own destiny and not having to get up at the same time everyday and commute to work – the benefits far outweighed the difficulties.
Chris digging a trench for the drains at the back of Peche cottage in our first year
Our first summer went reasonably well and once September came we were looking forward to a winter of relaxing – my father had different ideas. He couldn’t see us lazing around and he’d just recently purchased yet another stone barn in the next village. We spent that winter learning how to wire two way switches, solder copper pipes and fit a bathroom, lay wooden floors and repair rotten roofs. He even put the pressure on by insisting we advertise the cottages as holiday lets for the summer – so we had 8 months to convert a barn with dirt floors and no electric or water into a comfortable holiday home – never having put up so much as a shelf before ! We did it of course, with my Dads help and instruction and it was a very self satisfied feeling we had when we showed in our first guests that following summer.
The Galanchat cottage we renovated in our first winter. Then sold to some regular guests of ours and now belongs to a French family.
The following winter my brother got into the family business by purchasing a run down farm in the village of Gibourne. At the time he lived in Hong Kong, so paid us to renovate it for him (now we were so experienced !) Over the next couple of years we renovated another three barns into holiday homes – oh yes, and built a pool too. La Vendange was born ! This was all done in the winter time, with our summers spent running (and cleaning) all these holiday homes. It was pretty hectic.
One of the cottages we renovated at La Vendange for my brother
For the first 10 years we just offered holiday accommodation to anyone and everyone. We might have a family with a baby and toddler in one cottage, a group of adults in another and a family with teenagers in the third. We had barbecues but you paid and we would provide and cook everything, also providing free flowing wine – we’d be on the go all day until often 3am serving wine. We offered a breakfast service on your first morning and a supper service on the first evening too. Our vine walks lasted 4 or 5 hrs and took in not only Eric Cartauds winery with a tasting but a local potter too.
Some guests enjoying our barbecue food in the early days
When Benjamin came along in 2003 and Thomas in 2005 we just couldn’t do the things we had before so things evolved. We told one of our regular families we were stopping the barbecues as we could no longer put in the same hours as before – they were horrified, it was one of the highlights of their holidays. They suggested that families supply their own food and wine and we just tell them when and where – it was a great success and a lot less work for us.
We stopped the breakfasts and suppers but started doing Teddy bear picnics when we had lots of little children staying. This was a huge success too and we started thinking what else we could provide for young families like our own.
We soon realised that catering to young families was a great market. Pre schoolers come in June and September – a time when we were often very quiet if not empty. With the arrival of the cheap airline routes being opened up, more young families were travelling further afield as it was easier than a long car journey which was the only real option before. We started offering more equipment – not just a cot and a high chair but a steriliser, potty, booster seats, plastic crockery etc. It was all very much appreciated and families started coming year after year because they said there was no where else like it and it was so easy for them, it made their holiday so much more relaxing.
We started focussing our publicity in areas where young families would be looking. In the early days we only advertised in Chez Nous, a glossy brochure and it worked for us, but then the company was taken over and it became less and less effective in advertising to our core market. We started looking at other companies but no one at the time really offered what we were after so we started our own web site.
Initially all reservations were done by phone, few people had email. We had a paper brochure we would send out to interested families. They would post back a booking form and a cheque and we would post back confirmation of their booking. These days everythings online from completing the booking form to making the payment and we rarely actually ‘speak’ to any of our families before they arrive, saying that with the ease of email we tend to have much more communication.
We are proudly a Mumsnet best holiday destination
I had great fun developing the web site how to add photos and change the colours. Now I need to know about html, seo and google analytics to stay even close to the top of our game. Most of our reservations now come not through advertising but through google searches for our key search terms like ‘child friendly’ . It’s constantly developing and changing with the focus now being on independent reviews like on trip advisor and Mumsnet being a top priority to internet savvy families. I’m certainly no expert and no doubt could pay someone to do these things far better for me , but I enjoy doing it (and havn’t been self employed for 20 years to start paying other people to do my job for me) I try to stay reasonably up to date and have a strong Google presence (just search Wendy Blakeman) and try to stay active on facebook and twitter.
We now spend our winters building new properties to let, not as holiday homes but as permanent rentals, we have one that is finished and let, a second that is nearly finished and a piece of land waiting for me to do the plans. I also have Chris building me a lovely extension to our house, so we are still pretty busy. We also have a couple of properties that are suitable for families other than those with young children – perhaps with teens or just groups of adults. Find out more here
Our Fontaine villa that Chris built
Twenty years ago today we started on a great life experience. We had an amazing opportunity thanks to our family and have hopefully done them proud developing the business into what it is today. We have certainly enjoyed it and will certainly be continuing, at least for the next few years.
Thank you to all the families who have stayed with us over the last 20 years.
Watch out for the book – you may see yourself in it !!
Content by Wendy Blakeman